The Houston Texans don't know what they're doing.
The play-calling throughout was horrid. At first, O'Brien's conservative nature hamstrung Watson, while the Texans apparently didn't realize they were winning late in the contest and provided a perplexing set of play calls.
If not for Watson's ability to improvise and work outside the scheme's structure, the Texans would be winless instead of 1-1.
But they did win, and every coach will take an ugly victory over a well-played loss. These warts won't fade anytime soon, though.
Multiple excuses were built into Thursday's contest before a single down was played: Watson made his first start on the road after suffering a slight ankle injury during a short week of preparation. Each was a reason for the quarterback not to succeed.
O'Brien only made Watson's plight more difficult. The coach didn't appear to have any confidence in his first-year signal-caller.
Obviously, the Texans were short-handed. The offense was down to its fourth tight end and had only three wide receivers. Yet the usage of an extra offensive lineman and an obvious plan of attack, which entailed force-feeding a running game against a talented Cincinnati Bengals defensive front, didn't work.
This approach hindered Watson's natural ability and didn't help establish a comfort level for him.
Simplification doesn't need to mean a run-based offense with tight formations and Watson under center. O'Brien could have implemented more of the things Watson did at Clemson. But he failed to.
|Rookie Quarterbacks' First Start (2017)|
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The first-round pick was a superstar in college. The Tigers built an offense around his ability to get the ball out quickly and accurately based on half-field and simple reads. He's capable of doing more, but this approach would have been an ideal initial step.
Watson wasn't the first rookie to start at quarterback this season, either. The Cleveland Browns already anointed DeShone Kizer their franchise signal-caller. Cleveland head coach Hue Jackson provided a different approach compared to O'Brien.
Jackson spread the field, motioned often, used tempo and kept Kizer predominantly in shotgun to limit the Pittsburgh Steelers' defensive options in Week 1. The Browns didn't need to simplify the offense, though, because the coach schemed ways to make his pre-snap reads easier.
Almost none of this can be said of the Texans' approach. Yes, Watson was in shotgun more during the second half, and he was given easier reads as he mainly threw to DeAndre Hopkins.
Yet O'Brien inexplicably placed more onus on his quarterback late in the game than he did at any previous point. With his team winning 10-9 with 3:40 remaining in the fourth quarter, O'Brien had Watson drop back to pass three of four times. The only run came when the Texans faced 1st-and-20 after Hopkins was called for pass interference.
The Texans didn't want to put the ball in Watson's hands and let him play. Instead, O'Brien waited until it was almost too late, and the team barely managed enough to win the contest.
Frankly, the rookie didn't play all that well, but his natural ability took over when the Texans needed it the most. Watson provided the deciding score when he ran 49 yards for his first professional rushing touchdown, which made it 10-3 late in the second quarter after the extra point was tacked on, as the NFL's official site relayed:
Mr. @DeshaunWatson WILL DO IT HIMSELF. FORTY-NINE YARD TOUCHDOWN RUN! #Texans #TNF https://t.co/cpo5o71D6l2017-9-15 01:44:49
The 22-year-old may have issues with keeping his eyes up when pressured, but few quarterbacks can provide the same spark when they decide to run. It comes naturally to Watson, and this is the area where he needs to find his groove.
"He just has that ability and that knack," O'Brien said of Watson, per the Houston Chronicle's Brian T. Smith. "... Overall he did a nice job and he was smart with the ball."
O'Brien can't micro-manage each contest in an attempt to limit rookie mistakes. They're going to happen. But Watson can be at his best when he's improvising and allowing his instincts to take over.
The quarterback will need to do so, as Houston's offensive line is such a limiting factor.
The coaching staff made changes after the team surrendered 10 sacks to the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 1. The new group proved to be fractionally better. Veteran Chris Clark took over at left tackle. He had his hands full, especially with rookie pass-rusher Carl Lawson. Greg Mancz was inserted as a starter at right guard.
Houston still surrendered three sacks, five more quarterback hits and consistently lost at the point of attack.
Nothing short of signing Duane Brown to a contract extension and looking at the best available free agents (John Greco? Nick Mangold? Branden Albert? Jeremy Zuttah?) will make this unit better.
Watson's mobility helps in certain cases, but he's also going to be unpredictable in his drops, hold the ball too long and do the things rookies often do. A reliable offensive line can offset these issues. The Texans offensive line is the furthest thing from reliable, though.
O'Brien should pair Watson with fellow rookie D'Onta Foreman. NFL running backs are asked to make their own holes at times. Every run play won't be perfectly blocked, and those backs who wait often find themselves on the ground behind the line of scrimmage. Foreman ran hard against the Bengals with 12 carries for 40 yards.
Lamar Miller may have provided the team with a 1,000-yard season in 2016, but the 5'10" back is not the type of runner the Texans need right now. Foreman is. This year's third-round pick is a 6'0", 235-pound pile-mover. He'll get the tough yards, and he's used to running out of shotgun formation.
Catering the offense to the quarterback, doing everything possible to improve the offensive line and taking a different approach in the backfield are simple moves the Texans can make to improve the situation around Watson.
If the organization does these things, Houston will finally look like it knows what it's doing.